BOGOTA, Colombia -- Make room Juan Valdez, it’s time to meet the green-aproned barista.
This week, Starbucks made its much-anticipated debut in the country synonymous with coffee after decades of roasting Colombia’s Arabica beans for billions of java lovers the world over.
The three-floor coffee house in Bogota is the first of 50 that the Seattle-based company plans to open here in the next five years. In a nod to the country’s proud coffee-growing tradition, it’s also the only one in the world to serve exclusively locally-sourced coffee.
But will Colombians answer Starbucks’ siren call and ditch a popular local chain bearing the bushy-whiskered coffee farmer’s name?
Colombia’s coffee federation, owner of the Juan Valdez chain, is outwardly welcoming the competition. It says the arrival of Starbucks will boost the market for gourmet java even if sales at its nearly 200 stores in Colombia take a hit over the short term.
“There’s room in the market for us both,” said Alejandra Londono, head of international sales for the Colombian chain.
Juan Valdez’s social mission promoting Colombian coffee and contributing to producers’ welfare is likely to keep customers loyal, said Mr. Londono.
Since its founding 11 years ago, the Colombian chain has funneled more than $20 million to a national fund that supports the country’s 560,000 coffee-growing families, some of whom also own shares in the company.
While Starbucks also has burnished its image for corporate responsibility, offering employees in the U.S. generous health care benefits and now online college courses, it’s stayed clear of Colombia, Latin America’s third-largest economy, even as it has opened more than 700 stores in 12 other countries in the region. That may have been because it feared trampling on local sensibilities already hurt by the branding of coffee that leaves growers earning just a few pennies from every $4 venti latte sold.
“Given the dependence we have on Colombian coffee farmers we wanted to tread very lightly over the years,” CEO Howard Schultz said in an interview in Bogota. So “when we did decide to come we wanted to do it in a way that was very respectful and through the lens of humility.”
A desire to overcome the commodities curse is also what’s been driving the federation’s focus on adding value up the retail chain, a strategy reflected in more sophisticated local coffee-drinking culture.
While known for exporting the world’s finest beans, until recently Colombians’ taste in coffee was quite provincial, relegated to a preference for heavily-sweetened, warmed-over black coffee known as tinto, which is sold nearly everywhere.